How a Sixty Year Old Movie Foresaw Our Fascination With Watching. 

If a movie predicts the future should it be billed as sci-fi? Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom debuted in 1960 to negative critical reviews. It wasn’t until years later that critics began to see Powell’s production for the well-crafted movie that it is (positive reviews from the likes of Martin Scorsese help). Peeping Tom is billed as a crime drama and a strong argument can be made that it is one of the first modern slasher/horror movies. This movie is great when viewed on all these levels, but there are some interesting points in the movie that can be viewed as eerie predictions of life in 2019. Powell’s movie is obviously not science fiction, but his depiction of scoptophilia provides some interesting connections to our current fascination with watching and being watched.

Although the movie debuted in 1960, there are a few scenes that would be perfect in a contemporary movie focused a compulsion to watch. Mark Lewis, played by Karlheinz Bohm, is the central character of Peeping Tom. Mark suffers from scoptophilia, what is explained in the movie as, “The morbid urge to gaze.” That very explanation sadly can be applied to many people who are drawn to live feeds and up to the minute posts. The first scene of the movie involves Mark secretly filming an event as it happens. Immediately after this first scene we see it replayed as Mark watches his film of the event. The scene may be shocking on first view but it loses some of this shock on a second viewing. One is left to wonder if Mark’s urge to gaze wears off a little with each viewing.This same question can be asked of viewers of the aforementioned live feeds and posts. When does shock give way to apathy? When does the desensitization begin? Although the movie centers on Mark’s morbid urge to gaze there are also scenes that imply an urge to be gazed upon.

We find out rather early in the movie that Mark’s childhood was closely monitored and filmed by his father, a renowned biologist. Mark refers to the key events of his childhood as a series of “sequences” that were all filmed. This scene is prescient of people who currently live their lives on social media. The event (sequence) is less important than the number of likes and shares that it gets. The urge to be gazed upon is not just shown through the character of Mark. Vivian, played by Moira Shearer, is an aspiring actress who agrees to be part of a film Mark is shooting. She makes two statements that speak to an urge to be gazed upon. First, Vivian says, “Make us famous,” while Mark is preparing a set. This quote sounds like a mantra for those who, in 2019, aspire to be ‘instafamous’. Secondly, Vivian playfully gets behind a studio camera and says, “I’m photographing you photographing me.” In her desire to be watched she is oblivious to the danger she is in. How many people living online worry about (or even acknowledge) the possible dangers? Powell’s presentation of both the morbid urge to gaze and to be gazed upon made for an excellent movie in 1960 and gives contemporary audiences a few scenes to contemplate.

Peeping Tom was not well received in 1960 because of its subject matter and Powell’s approach to presenting that subject matter.  That subject matter, the urge to gaze and be gazed upon, is a common topic today. Peeping Tom has several prescient scenes that are worth a closer look for those interested in our obsession with watching and being watched.

-K-

Peeping Tom with Karlheinz Bohm and Anna Massey.  Directed by Michael Powell.